The 116th Christmas Bird Count season was an eventful one indeed—though not in the ways that many of us expected! The continuing, severe, long-term El Niño event wreaked havoc in the northwestern Pacific Ocean, with warm ocean temperatures altering the food chain for marine creatures and resulting in huge die-offs of seabirds, especially Common Murres. Storm after storm pummeled the Pacific Northwest coast. While the El Niño’s moisture began to address the historic drought in some regions of the west and southwest, these storms severely affected the ability of CBC participants to conduct their counts.
Elsewhere, the El Niño-driven weather had quite the opposite effect. Much of the rest of the continent was experiencing more spring-like weather in early winter; counters in the northern tier of states and much of southern Canada were out counting in absurdly pleasant conditions. Large swaths of the continent “normally” already in the icy, snow-covered grip of winter were still unfrozen. While this made for enjoyable counting conditions, it also made it difficult to find birds, as many species were dispersed around the open landscape rather than concentrated in the areas where birders usually encounter them during their time in the field. Also, counts in the southern regions suffered considerably as many late migrating species—especially those associated with wetlands—stayed north in droves. Winter finches and boreal irruptive raptors were also notable for their absence in most regions.
But still by all accounts the 116th Christmas Bird Count was a record-setting season. Participants along the west coast proved they’re not just fair-weather birders, and across the hemisphere observers crisscrossed the lands with their accustomed passion. All told, again this season a new high total of 2,505 circles was covered, with 1,902 counts in the United States, 471 in Canada (including the French territory of St.-Pierre et Miquelon), and 132 in Latin America, the Caribbean, Bermuda, and the Pacific Islands. As is true each and every season, a roster of new counts is included in that total, and the full list of new CBCs submitted during the 116th Christmas Bird Count is listed in Table 1. On that list is one count initiated by indigenous people in Guna Yala, Panama, and a count from the far-flung Caribbean island of Barbados. Welcome aboard one and all!
Not surprisingly, given the new high number of counts and the balmy continental weather, we again achieved a new record level of participation on the Christmas Bird Count, with 76,669 observers in the field and at feeders. In the United States, 59,039 participants helped out, with 52,771 counters traversing the fields and streams while 6,268 watched their feeders. In Canada, the totals were 10,669 in the field and 3,799 at feeders, for a total birding army of 14,468. And in the farther-flung regions, 3,162 folks contributed their efforts, with 3,106 in the field and 56 at feeders. Many, many thanks go to each and every birder who participates on the Christmas Bird Count, as without your individual and combined efforts the CBC could not be the wildly successful endeavor that it has become.
With all those people on all those counts, it’s to be expected that a good number of compilers will drum up 100 or more observers for their efforts, and Table 2 presents the list of the 90 circles in the 116th CBC attended by 100 or more participants.
All that coverage, and all those party-hours (and days…and weeks…), were bound to turn up a lot of birds of a mind-boggling array of species. In total, 58,878,071 birds were tallied: 54,531,408 in the United States; 3,723,228 in Canada; and 623,435 in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Pacific Islands. Diversity-wise, 2,607 species were tallied—roughly one-quarter of the world’s known avifauna. Almost one-fifth of that full total was tallied on one count—Yanayacu, Ecuador, at 509 species, and that lofty number is *down* slightly from last season! Even in a region that boasts one of the most varied bird lists in the world, that’s an amazing total. All counts combined in the United States tallied 646 species and 53 forms (plus 7 in count week only and 36 exotics) and in Canada 297 species were found (plus 6 count week only). New to the United States all-time list was the Fieldfare found on the Missoula, Montana count. In Canada, Vermilion Flycatcher at Wallaceburg, Ontario, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher at Cedar Creek, Ontario, and Siberian Accentor at White Rock, British Columbia were all added to that country’s overall Christmas Bird Count roster. Another remarkable Eurasian thrush, this one tallied at Victoria, British Columbia—a Redwing—was an incredible record, but new to neither the Canadian nor the overall Christmas Bird Count list!
A stunning addition to the 116-year Christmas Bird Count list of species was tallied on not one but two different island CBCs this season, the long-running count on Bermuda and the new one on Barbados. That species was Eurasian Marsh-Harrier, a relative of our Northern Harrier. This was not a double-count of the same bird: Both birds were present on their respective islands at the same time. This is a long-distance migrant species in its homeland, breeding in central and northern Europe and wintering around the Mediterranean Sea, India, and sub-Saharan Africa. It has shown up on a few occasions before on islands in the Caribbean or on the North American mainland, but these records were the first encountered on Christmas Bird Counts.
While conceptually we realize that the over-arching value of the Christmas Bird Count data we collect is in the population numbers, long-term trends, and documentation of shifting ranges, what often drives our passion on the day of the count is the burning question—“How many species will we tally today?” This isn’t a measure that is often tracked by researchers, but it often drives participants and compilers to get out and count on any given CBC. With the record numbers of counts and participants in the 116th CBC, and also the huge cumulative list of species encountered, it’s no wonder that this season there are 134 counts on the list of circles tallying 150 or more species, all presented in Table 3. Once again at the top of the list in Canada and the United States is Matagorda County—Mad Island Marsh, Texas at 239 species, while in the neotropics, Yanayacu, Ecuador again tops their list at 509 species. Less frequently touted, but no less impressive, are the counts that have species totals at the other end of the spectrum. In the 116th CBC two counts only tallied one species, Arctic Bay and Igloolik, both in Nunavut in far northern Canada. Rankin Inlet, also in Nunavut, gave them a run for their frozen money at two species this season. The Alaskan arctic outpost count, Prudhoe Bay, has not been conducted in recent years, only tallied one species ever in its entire run from the 88th Count through the 113th CBC. The single species seen by all these counts was the same—Common Raven. Rankin Inlet has been run since the 102nd CBC and has the mind-numbing total of four species on its checklist; Common Raven and Common Eider (tallied this season), plus Rock Ptarmigan and Hoary Redpoll. There have been counts in the Arctic region over the years that didn’t find any birds at all, despite going out in 2 ½ hours of twilight searching! So clearly Christmas Bird Counts take all sorts of dedication, be it looking for *any* bird in the Arctic, identifying over 500 species (mostly by voice) in the neotropics, or taking your best shot at estimating numbers of millions of blackbirds coming to roost in the temperate zone between.
Continuing with the species total thread from the 116th Christmas Bird Count, often it’s not just what the tally is at the end of the day on a given CBC, but where we stand with that number compared to other counts in our region that drives our passion. While not all circles have the latitude, attendance, or geographic diversity to produce lofty species totals above 150, we can always strive to do our best in comparison with our neighboring counts. Table 4 lists the circles in the 116th Christmas Bird Count with regional high counts—congratulations to all!
Role of Weather and Population Trends
Those are all the hard numbers from the 116th Christmas Bird Count, but how did it play out on the ground, in the field during the season? The El Niño appears to have had a big role in many ways, not only during the 23-day period of the count season itself, but over the weeks, months, and seasons prior to the 116th count. Global climate perturbations such as El Niños affect weather patterns on a continental basis, and often on multi-year cycles. The fall and winter of 2015-2016 fell at the tail end of a two-year El Niño, with the cumulative effects of two years affecting the results of the 116th CBC. Continuing droughts in the western and southwestern states, as well as in the Northeast, were negatively impacting food for birds, both insect- and seed-eaters. In the somewhat shorter term, the late winter and early spring of 2016 had been a seesaw season in many areas—again, particularly in the Northeast—where a record warm spell in March was followed by a record hard freeze in April. This had a major effect on the production of wild food crops in the summer of 2015, thus also potentially negatively impacting the breeding season for birds. The fall was record-mild across much of North America; all of this culminated in the weather we all experienced during the 116th CBC period.
Here is a good summary from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration about this El Niño.
In one very large nutshell, the weather during the 116th CBC period was inclement in the Atlantic Provinces and Pacific Northwest, but otherwise abnormally warm and dry. And with the El Niño-driven seasons prior to the 116th count, wild food supplies in the northern forests were fairly good, but otherwise less than ideal across the continent. Also, flooding rains in the Southeast and central states earlier in the fall still restricted access for CBC participants in many areas. In Hawaii, the El Niño-enhanced rainfall over the summer of 2015 produced a bumper crop of malaria-carrying mosquitos, likely contributing to a lower-than-average number of native forest birds being tallied on counts there.
Furthermore, the generally mild fall and pleasant counting conditions enabled birds to disperse across the landscape, rather than forcing them into nooks and crannies where CBC participants normally tally them during their counts. All of this resulted in an unusually low number of birds counted overall, just under 59 million birds, in spite of the fact that there was a record level of coverage this season. This number is comparable to the last low season, in the 110th count, when just under 56 million birds were tallied. That season had similarities and contrast to the 116th count; on a continental level, weather was very challenging, and curtailed observers’ ability to find birds that were present. But during the 110th season there was a similar dearth of irruptive species, both raptors and winter finches, as in this 116th count.
These low seasons might seem of concern; the totals are about 10 million fewer birds than in average seasons. But for all the reasons outlined above, this doesn’t mean that birds are missing from the landscape, it only means they were not found in the roughly 5 percent of the North American landmass that is covered by Christmas Bird Count circles. In the 116th count, they were likely dispersed across the landscape, enjoying the mild fall, rather than huddling in the protected and open areas we generally expect to find them on CBCs.
Roosting species can also have a tremendous effect on total numbers of birds in a given CBC season, either because (as may have been the case in the 116th count) they are still scattered around in the landscape, or because more than the average number of roosts were outside prescribed Christmas Bird Count circles.
Aside from the lack of winter irruptive species, two avian trends in the 116th Christmas Bird Count continue to be apparent. Northern Bobwhite continues its steady decline across its native range, mentioned as declining or in record low numbers from the Mid-Atlantic states to Florida and throughout the Midwest. The only ray of hope for this species in the 116th CBC was from New Mexico, where numbers seemed somewhat up in the eastern part of the state. This may have been a result of the lessening of the drought conditions in that region.
The other species of note is Eurasian Collared-Dove. Native to south-central Asia, over the course of the 20th century it spread rapidly northwestward throughout Europe. It is also a popular cage bird, and in the 1970s a feral population of the species became established in the Bahamas. In the 1980s it colonized Florida, and since then has rapidly spread over much of North America—again with a northwestward vector. In the 116th Christmas Bird Count there were record numbers of Eurasian Collared-Doves tallied from North Carolina throughout the Midwest and northward to the Great Lakes and across southern Canada to British Columbia. It has even made its way to southeastern Alaska! Interestingly, however, numbers of this species are plummeting in Florida, Georgia, Alabama/Mississippi, and Tennessee. One wonders what is going on, and future CBC seasons will certainly be documenting this species’ ups and downs.
The importance of the Christmas Bird Count data set to the 2014 Audubon Birds and Climate Change study continues to grow, as the version 2.0 Climate Study gets under way. The cumulative efforts of all CBC participants over the past five decades enabled Audubon and other groups to document how species have shifted their early-winter ranges in the face of a changing climate. The 2014 report was an initial foray into predicting how future climate change scenarios will affect bird populations on a continental basis—and the picture isn’t pretty at all.
In response, Audubon is hatching a new citizen science collaboration that will test whether selected species of birds are changing their range over time, as predicted by the 2014 Birds and Climate Change study. This program is called Climate Watch, and it will be entering its second winter season this coming January, shortly after the upcoming 117th Christmas Bird Count concludes. This second season will continue as a pilot version of Climate Watch, but stay tuned for opportunities in future years as this new citizen science program takes shape. The Christmas Bird Count and Climate Watch will both be of critical importance as we track the fates of the birds of the Americas over the next century.
Why Participate in the CBC?
We all have our own reasons for devoting time to Christmas Bird Counts in the Holiday Season; it may be an interest in a birding activity during the upcoming Holiday break, looking forward to the second season of a CBC first attended last year, or connecting yet again with the friends, birds, and locations that we’ve visited for decades. The 116th CBC season may have been a major milestone, or just another year for many folks. Chan Robbins, originator of the Breeding Bird Survey in the 1960s, continued his involvement with the Christmas Bird Count that began in 1934. Paul Sykes, Chan’s junior by over a decade, attended his 500th CBC and beyond. Kelly McKay, over a decade junior to Paul, attempted yet another CBC “Marathon.” This past season marked both the 40th year since I did my first CBC while in grad school—the Newport-Westport, RI-MA count, and the 29th year I have had the honor of guiding the Christmas Bird Count program to successful completion each season.
Weather permitting, I always do two CBCs on the first weekend of the count period—my traditional Newport-Westport count on the first Saturday of the season, and the Northampton, Massachusetts count on the first Sunday. This past year a long-time friend who has done CBCs in Arizona, Ohio, and other locations was here to visit, and attended both counts. The Newport-Westport is a (to some folks) typically strenuous day; up at 3:30 a.m., driving by four, meet up with folks some hours away by seven; bird all day; attend the compilation. Then the added fun of driving three hours home, getting back around midnight. It’s a great count; sometimes we’ve had the New England high species tally, and in the area I cover alone we’ve encountered as many as 94 species.
The Northampton count the next day is a marked contrast. Our house is on the edge of the count circle, and our yard is covered by others on the CBC. My area is close by, less than two miles away. The whole day is done on foot, usually seven or eight miles depending upon snow cover, all in upland woodland and farmland habitat. The entire Northampton count struggles to break 90 species in total; my area struggles to break 25.
But it’s wonderful, and in fact the most memorable experience last year wasn’t on the Newport-Westport count, but here near home. Early in the day—also shockingly mild and sunny—I thought I’d heard a Ruffed Grouse drumming in the distance. That didn’t seem likely on a mid-December day; we listened more carefully and could not discern anything more than a distant dog’s barking and human-generated noise. Toward early afternoon, and several miles away by foot, *another* grouse started drumming, this one much closer and heard (mostly felt) by all. The local Ruffed Grouse must have been responding to the spring-like day length and weather, and were indeed drumming away.
Welcome to our new and ever-changing natural world—I know we’ll keep the tradition going, and I’ll see you this upcoming season on the 117th Christmas Bird Count.
|Table 1. New counts in the 116th (2015-2016) Christmas Bird Count|
|Count Code||Count Name|
|ABGL||Gregoire Lake, Alberta|
|ABPB||Pigeon Lake-Battle Lake, Alberta|
|ABSO||Stoney Plain, Alberta|
|NBSY||Salisbury, New Brunswick|
|ONPB||Pike Bay, Ontario|
|ONPR||Peach Tree, Ontario|
|ONRR||Rainy River, Ontario|
|ARSR||Sylamore Ranger District, Arkansas|
|CACY||California City, California|
|CTGL||Guilford-Long Island Sound, Connecticut|
|INSA||Southwest Allen County, Indiana|
|INSD||Southern Adams County, Indiana|
|MIBC||Barry County, Michigan|
|MNGL||Glacial Ridge-Rydell N.W.R., Minnesota|
|MODT||Dent-Texas County, Missouri|
|MTCB||Cut Bank, Montana|
|NCPM||Pilot Mountain, North Carolina|
|NMLS||Los Alamos, New Mexico|
|ORPV||Pine Valley, Oregon|
|TXHC||Houston (Central), Texas|
|CARIBBEAN, LATIN AMERICA|
|BAWE||West End, Grand Bahama, Bahamas|
|BBBA||Barbados, West Indies|
|BRRE||Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil|
|CLLB||Los Besotes, Cesar, Colombia|
|CLLP||Leguizamo, Putumayo, Colombia|
|CLNB||Norte de Bolivar, Bolivar, Colombia|
|CLPU||Puerto Asis, Putumayo, Colombia|
|CUJB||Jardin Botanico, La Habana, Cuba|
|ECQU||Quito, Pichincha, Ecuador|
|GMLT||Laguna del Tigre N.P.-Las Guacamayas Biological Station, Petén, Guatemala|
|GMNQ||Niño Perdido-Resplendent Quetzal Biological Corridor, Salamá, Guatemala|
|MXCN||Colima Norte, Colima, Mexico|
|MXHC||Hampolol, Campeche, Mexico|
|MXPU||Puebla, Puebla, Mexico|
|MXSF||San Fernando, Chiapas, Mexico|
|MXSG||San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico|
|MXSQ||Sierra de Quila, Jalisco, Mexico|
|MXTS||Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, Mexico|
|RPGY||Guna Yala, Panamá, Panama|
|TODF||Delaford, Eastern Tobago, Tobago|
|TOSB||Scarborough Botanics, Western Tobago, Tobago|
|(50 new counts)|
|Table 2. Counts with 100 or more participants in the 116th (2015-2016) CBC|
|Code||Count Name||# Observers||(Field + Feeder)|
|ABED||Edmonton, AB||520||(168 + 352)|
|ORPD||Portland, OR||354||(238 + 116)|
|CAOA||Oakland, CA||315||(277 + 38)|
|SCHH||Hilton Head Island, SC||296||(236 + 60)|
|BCVI||Victoria, BC||291||(241 + 50)|
|MACO||Concord, MA||290||(192 + 98)|
|CASB||Santa Barbara, CA||261||(243 + 18)|
|ABCA||Calgary, AB||252||(138 + 114)|
|SCSC||Sun City-Okatie, SC||232||(205 + 27)|
|OREU||Eugene, OR||225||(117 + 108)|